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“She was dusting as billions rolled in,” ran headlines in Sydney when Judith Neilson suddenly found herself one of Australia’s richest women.
Neilson, a stay-at-home mother, was indeed doing the housework when tabloid reporters telephoned her in 2007. Her then husband, Kerr Neilson, had floated part of his funds company Platinum Asset Management on the stock exchange. In one afternoon the mother-of-two’s personal wealth rocketed to A$1.25bn (then worth about $1bn), according to local media. This year, Forbes rated her 37th on the Australia Rich List, with a net worth of $720m.
“I didn’t know,” laughs Neilson, perched on the edge of her sofa, recalling her shock. The reporter, too, was incredulous — that she had answered the call at all.
“I said I always answer my phone,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I still do. I wouldn’t want a million servants sitting around. You can only have so much [money] and where do you put it all? Where do you use it all?”
Zimbabwean-born Neilson had been a keen art collector — and wealthy enough to pursue this interest — before her windfall. Yet since 2007 she has poured tens of millions of dollars into philanthropic arts projects in her adopted city of Sydney, including White Rabbit Gallery, pushing her way to the top of The Art Life’s 2016 list of the 50 most powerful people in Australian art.
We meet as Neilson prepares to open her house for the Sydney Architecture Festival. At times said to be shy and awkward, today she is chatty and warm. Dressed in an all-black ensemble that shows off her silver hair — so silver it is almost iridescent — she sips Chinese tea while enthusing about her home.
The property, called Indigo Slam after a detective novel by Robert Crais (Neilson, who trained as a graphic designer, is drawn to the colour indigo), is more monument or museum than private residence. Architects Smart Design Studio dubbed the multimillion dollar steel and white concrete building, which was completed earlier this year, a “sculpture to be lived in”. Industrial and restrained, its jutting, façade was inspired by the work of 20th-century Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida.
Inside, each individual piece of furniture has been custom made by the Malaysian-Australian designer Khai Liew. Streaming natural light provides texture, and cathedral-like expanses (the ground floor can host a 60-person sit-down dinner and the stairwell is a dizzying 42.5ft from floor to ceiling) are mixed with smaller, quieter rooms that are more akin to cells in a monastery.
Aside from a black handbag and some stray pens left on Neilson’s bedroom desk there is no sign of messy daily life or even family photos. At the mention of clutter, she shudders involuntarily, declaring that she “hates” it.
Neilson has rejected Sydney harbour’s mega mansions for inner-city Chippendale, an area stuffed with working-class terraces and crumbling warehouses. Once it was known for drugs and crime — even a decade ago, she says, “taxi drivers would not come here. It was terribly dangerous.” Her other home is an ocean-side property on Freshwater Beach north of the city.
Chippendale is now having its moment as an arts hub, a transformation spearheaded largely by Neilson and helped along by a smattering of plush new retail and residential developments. Of her decision not only to invest in the area, but to live there, she says: “I think it’s totally disgraceful if you spend the time and the money . . . and don’t do something that sets an example.”
In 2009 Neilson opened the White Rabbit Gallery at a former Rolls-Royce factory in the neighbourhood. The free-to-visit private museum exhibits her growing collection from China and Taiwan (she travels to Asia four times a year). A wide range of pieces is on show in rotating exhibitions, from Chen Tianzhuo’s hip-hop videos of muscular dancing twin dwarfs to a black cathedral created from bondage leatherwear and sex toys by Xu Zhen.
Neilson started collecting Chinese art in 2000. Yet, she says, “I’m definitely the new kid on the block”. She exudes an understated confidence, a sense of being rooted that comes from a humble past (her father was a mechanic, her mother a teacher). “Money,” she says, “can distort a whole lot of things.”
When she launched White Rabbit people thought she was “bonkers”. It costs up to A$4m annually to run, but it has been a wild success and Neilson is a hands-on arts patron, often to be found eating dumplings in the café. “I’ve learned some very interesting things about myself in the lift,” she says with amusement.
If exhibitions such as last year’s Paradi$e Bitch (named after the title of Chen’s dancing dwarf video) are of the Vegemite love-it-or-hate-it variety, Neilson does not care. “It’s entirely up to you,” she shrugs. “You can like it or not like it, be interested or whatever. But do not walk past it.”
Now Neilson is building two more art institutions that will make it even harder to walk on by. Phoenix, a new performance space and gallery, is being built next to her home (as we talk the boom and bang of construction can be heard). Another storage and research facility will open next year in the suburb of Alexandria, with a vast vestibule three-quarters the size of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London.
For all her drive and focus, Neilson is not above sentimentality. She has buried a copy of Indigo Slam next to her front door, and other souvenirs are hidden within the house.
In Africa, as a baby, Neilson was given a small silver bell from a horse and cart. She still has it to this day. “It was special because people didn’t have money and this was tin plated,” she says. “For me it was a hell of a treasure. Maybe that started me collecting.” She instructed that a single brass bell be set in every concrete pour of her home. Although they will never again chime, it is an unseen reference to her childhood.
Born in Bulawayo in 1946, Neilson is the eldest of four sisters. “Money, people didn’t waste. You never threw away a piece of string and you never threw away a piece of paper,” she says.
Coca-Cola, in particular, was “one hell of a treat. It cost two and a half pennies,” she recalls, licking her lips. “When we got pocket money we’d ride down to the service station and have a Coke out of the fridge.” Although the cellar at Indigo Slam is lined with fine wines, Neilson still collects Coke paraphernalia.
Following her divorce last year, in which she reportedly received a billion-dollar settlement, Neilson lives alone with her two chihuahuas named Wasabi and Cumin. Her grown-up daughters, Paris and Beau, live nearby.
The artworks on the walls of Indigo Slam are from around the world. Neilson buys according to gut instinct (“I know immediately”) and she is adamant each and every canvas is “going to be here until the house crumbles”. Yet she acknowledges the changeability of taste. “Contemporary art does not have any value. We don’t know [how it may age]. It might be the simplest person who might become the master. I’ve seen the great names just fall by the way.”
Two pieces seem to revel in the theme of material consumption. One is a small tank made entirely from Chinese renminbi notes; the other is a sculpture of a naked, snow-white girl who lies, spreadeagle, next to the TV remote controls.
It is no surprise that Neilson sees her sudden wealth as a responsibility as well as a pleasure. “I haven’t got a pile of money that I just go out shopping with,” she says, adding quietly that she knows what pain feels like. “I lost twins,” she says, not wanting to elaborate more. “Watched them die on the machine. Still born. That’s just life.”
Neilson’s states her motto: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it. I have drummed that into my kids. I have drummed that into myself. If a wall falls down in front of us, we’ll sidestep and go the other way. I look back at my life. Some terrible things have happened — I wouldn’t have changed it one bit.”
Neilson is cautious about picking a favourite artwork. “I don’t have one. Even if you say you like one, it can start the market going — that’s just not fair, to the buyer or the seller.” Instead, she is drawn towards a rusty horseshoe next to her bed. “This,” she says, turning it over. “I picked it up next to the pyramids in Egypt. What the hell is a horseshoe doing there? So that’s good luck.”
Photographs: Adrian Cook